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THE READ: Common Calamities

What can literature tell us about the tragedies in Haiti and Chile?

Heinrich von Kleist’s famous story “The Earthquake in Chile” is set in Santiago in 1647. A young Carmelite nun named Josephe, condemned to death for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, is about to be beheaded. Across town, her lover, Jeronimo Rugera, is preparing to hang himself in the prison where he has been incarcerated. Just as the bells announcing Josephe’s imminent execution begin to toll, a gigantic earthquake strikes: We now know that it measured around 8.5 on the Richter scale, just a little less than the recent 8.8 quake. The pillar on which Jeronimo was to hang himself becomes his support, and he escapes as the building collapses around him. His beloved, saved by the same “heavenly miracle,” finds him in the countryside, where the refugees from the city have gathered. (This quotation and the others come from Peter Wortsman’s new translation of Kleist’s Selected Prose, just out in an attractive new edition from Archipelago Books.) The same townspeople who earlier that day had gathered to watch Josephe’s execution now greet the pair with warmth and compassion. Had the past, they wonder, only been a bad dream? The earthquake seems to have acted as a great leveler, erasing the previous divisions of class and piety:

Amidst these awful moments that had brought about the destruction of all of humanity’s worldly possessions, and during which all of nature threatened to be engulfed, it did indeed seem that the human spirit itself blossomed like a lovely flower. In the fields all around, as far as the eye could see, there were people of all social classes lying together, nobles and beggars, matrons of once stately households and peasant women, civil servants and day laborers, monks and nuns: all commiserating with each other, helping each other, cheerfully sharing the little of life’s necessities they’d been able to salvage, as though the common calamity had joined all those who’d managed to survive it into a single harmonious family of man.

But the new harmony is even shorter-lived than the European solidarity with America after September 11 (remember the “We are all Americans” declarations?). When Josephe and Jeronimo attend church with their new friends, they are stunned to hear the priest denounce the moral corruption that brought the earthquake upon the city, referring to the two of them by name. Josephe and Jeronimo are identified by people in the crowd—Jeronimo by his own father—and murdered. It takes more than an earthquake, Kleist suggests, to rend the social fabric. Physical buildings may crumble, but societal structures are fixed more firmly.

Amid the news reports comparing the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti and their different effects—especially the often-repeated statement that more people survived in Chile, despite the quake’s greater magnitude, because of the country’s stricter building codes and generally greater wealth—I found myself turning back to Kleist’s parable of injustice and inevitability. I had hoped, I suppose, to find some kind of wisdom or consolation in it, some explanation for the massive human suffering that accompanied these “acts of God.” (As my colleague Leon Wieseltier wrote several weeks ago, earthquakes do not solve metaphysical problems.) Apparently I had forgotten how little consolation is to be found in Kleist’s unsparing vision of the human condition. His stories are set all over the globe, but their worldview is the same: a society—if a group of human beings with so little fellow feeling deserves that name—where people who dare to live by an inner-conception of morality and justice are tormented by inflexible, inhumane laws or codes of behavior. (Kafka considered Kleist a kind of honorary ancestor.) His narratives are taut with psychological tension, but the outcome can never really be in doubt: innocents will pay for the crimes of the guilty, who go unpunished.

“Depending on how you view them, from the outside in or the inside out, Kleist’s narrative structures … are either emotional arches about to collapse overhead, or pressure cookers about to explode, that hold somehow, while the pressure gauge whirrs out of control,” Wortsman writes in an afterword to his translation. In addition to “The Earthquake in Chile,” the book also includes a less well-known story called “The Betrothal in Santo Domingo,” which takes place in what is now Haiti at the beginning of the nineteenth century, during the revolution—or, as Kleist puts it, “when the blacks slaughtered the whites.” The story, which describes the efforts of a mestizo girl to save a group of white refugees from a trap laid by her mulatto mother and her stepfather, the “dreadful old Negro” Congo Hoango, is irredeemably racist, as Wortsman acknowledges. (It is not a little misogynist, too: the young heroine falls in love with a European man after he rapes her.) The blacks in the story are conniving and bloodthirsty; the whites have apparently done no wrong, and the heroine dies in her attempt to save her lover from her relatives’ clutches. I’m not sure that, as Wortsman writes, it would have been a “literary calumny” to leave this story out of the volume. And on the surface, at least, this story seems to have very little relevance to the miseries depicted in the photographs that have been coming out of Haiti since January. But, like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, beneath the offenses of “The Betrothal in Santo Domingo” lies a narrative of the human condition that, like suffering itself, finally transcends race. Was not the massive death toll in Haiti really the price that innocent victims paid for the corruption, crimes, and ignorance of others?

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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